ITHACA, NY – There are a lot of things about New Roots that stand out.

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There’s the fact that its classes take place in a re-purposed hotel. There’s the daily farm-to-table lunches. There’s the strikingly informal way that some students refer to their principal as “Tina.”

What struck me most, though, is just how engaged the students I met there were.

In February, I met with New Roots principal Tina Nilsen-Hodges, toured the school and spoke with several students about their experiences at the school.

The first part of this two-part series will give you the big-picture vision that drives New Roots. In part two, we talk directly to students and teachers at New Roots and see how that vision translates into reality.

Growing New Roots

New Roots is quintessentially Ithacan. The school self-describes as “a public high school committed to education for sustainability and social justice.”

According to Nilsen-Hodges, it’s also quintessentially a charter school — a small and nimble organization meant to serve as a “living laboratory” for new approaches to education.

“The impetus for New Roots was the recognition that large systems change very slowly at a time when our economy and our planet are changing very rapidly. The educational system that created high school as we know was created 100 years ago for a completely different era and different purposes than we have now,” says Nilsen-Hodges.

Before New Roots, Nilsen-Hodges came from teaching at an alternative school with similar philosophies to the charter school. What she learned there inspired her as she set about establishing New Roots.

“I could literally see in front of me the transformation of the person,” Nilsen-Hodges says of that teaching experience. “Just tapping into who they are and who they could be and therefore engaging their academics and education in a different way than they had before.”

Nilsen-Hodges says that another factor that led her down this path was seeing the frustrations of other teachers working with highly-regimented curricula that limited non-traditional learning opportunities.

“When you’re bound by 42-minute periods and your school building is removed from the community center you can’t leave during your class period and do a service project or whatever it is that reflects your curriculum,” she says. “We’re designed to show how to make that possible.”

(Photo: Ithaca Voice)

The curriculum

While News Roots does a lot of things differently, that’s not to say they are just making up all its own rules. The school is required to follow state guidelines, meaning its student must pass regents exams in order to graduate.

In addition to the state-mandated requirements, New Roots has its own set of goals in mind for its students.

“It’s about developing entrepreneurial thinking skills. It’s about developing leadership skills. It’s about feeling connected to your community and being an active agent in creating the community you want to live in,” Nilsen-Hodges says.

“We want students to experience classroom learning as… helping them to understand the place in time that they live. It’s relevant, it’s meaningful to them,” she added.

What does all that look like on a practical level? Nilsen-Hodges explained how it led to a sort of hybridized curriculum. While the school has the necessary courses to prepare students for regents exams, it incorporates ideas relevant to the local community, sustainability and/or social justice.

For example, instead of the standard Earth Science and Biology that most high schoolers take in their first two years, New Roots offers “Earth Systems Science,” which examines how earth’s systems work together to support life on the planet.

Nilsen-Hodges says the idea of “systems thinking” is big at New Roots. It’s a way of helping students see the connections between people and their environments and vice versa.

For instance, a history class might examine the idea of resource extraction through the lens of the hydrofracking debate that’s so prominent today. The course would look back at Ithaca’s industrial history and the impacts that have carried forward and how those affect the community today.

“It’s really supportive of student’s developing their own perspective on what’s happening in the world. It’s not a particular ideological framework they’re being offered, it’s more a way of inquiring, connecting,” Nilsen-Hodges says.

(Photo: Ithaca Voice)

Challenges

New Roots relatively short existence (the school was founded in 2009) has been has been a contentious one at times. This is not an uncommon situation for charter schools.

“I was told that we had the largest expression for community support for a charter schools that SUNY Charter School Institute had ever seen up to the point when we were chartered,” says Nilsen-Hodges. “And then, they saw maybe not the largest but the loudest anti-charter backlash.”

In 2012, New Roots sought to revise its charter, reducing maximum enrollment from 225 to 200. A required public hearing to discuss the change drew a large crowd — over 40 people spoke according to a Lansing Star report, with 35, including many students, speaking in favor of the school.

It’s difficult to gauge how widespread opposition to the school is but its clear that its detractors are committed.

A similar change was proposed earlier this year, one that would bring New Roots enrollment cap down to 160. Only two members of the public spoke at that hearing, both members of a group that has opposed New Roots from the start.

Several members of the school board also spoke against New Roots during the January hearing.

New Roots has, in both cases, claimed that the change was made to better reflect the reality of attendance to the school.

Its opponents argue that New Roots’ declining attendance is a sign that the school is failing, and that its lower graduation rate is evidence that students are not being well served.

New Roots graduation rate for 2015 was 79 percent, which is just above the state average, although slightly below the Tompkins County average, and substantially below Ithaca High School at 94 percent.

The school district is required to pay a flat amount from its budget to New Roots for each student attending the charter school, which likely adds to this tension — especially since only 40 percent of New Roots students are from the Ithaca City School District. Most of the rest come from other areas in Tompkins County and a few from other counties.

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In part two of this series, we talk with students and teachers at New Roots to see how the philosophies that form the school’s foundations work out for those who will be impacted the most.

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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.